#21 - December in Laos

Sent: Tuesday, January 29, 2002 7:24 AM

So, where were we? It's been a little while hasn't it. Since the last episode sent on 11th December last year we have seen and done so much.

We're currently in Borneo, but before I can tell you about that we have to travel through Laos, Cambodia for Christmas, Thailand for New Year, learning to dive and all sorts of other stuff.

So, cast your mind back to where you were in mid-December, we are just about to cross the Mekong from Thailand in to Laos.

We clamber off the longtail, climb the steep, dusty banks of the Mekong, pass through Immigration and set off to find a roof for the night in Huay Xai, Laos. We eat with half a dozen others who have crossed the border today most of whom intend to travel down the Mekong to Luang Prabhang on one of the slow boats which take two days to complete the journey. Only Tiffany, the formidably coiffured Canadian hairdresser is intending to join us on the speed boat which makes the same 307km journey in just 6 hours.

'Speedboat.' To people of a certain age (which I would like to call 'youthful', though 'venerable' is far nearer the mark) the word 'speedboat' can mean only one thing. Howard's Way. Ken Masters, looking like a 'tacheless scene queen with his shaved head and long sideburns, crashing through the Solent waves at the helm of his thrusting fibreglass penis extension in a way that used to bring Kate O'Mara lasciviously to his side about twice an episode from what I remember. So 'speedboats' are at least 35 feet long and offer a range of creature comforts to their occupants, certainly Ken was never without a freshly poured G&T and Kate had always just touched up her make-up as a prelude to being touched up by Ken.

All of which is by way of explaining what I am expecting to see on arrival at Huay Xai Pier the next morning at 8am. Unfortunately rather a lot has got lost in the translation of 'speedboat' from English to Laos. We find that we will be spending the next six hours in the marginally bigger brother of the tiny canoe that we rode in at Chitwan National Park in Nepal. Our boat is 8 metres long and just 1.5 metres wide at it's widest point which is at the stern where the huge Toyota 16 Valve car engine is mounted. Protruding out of the back of the engine is the 4 metre long propeller shaft.

The seats are formed by wooden slats which slide into slots on either side of the boat. The seat positions are fixed and are so close together that Sausage can't fit her folded legs in behind the seat in front, let alone me! Our baggage is loaded and tied down in the front of the boat and we slowly and precariously arrange ourselves within the boat as best we can.

The boat allegedly holds 6, we are only five, the voracious Tiffany (2 breakfasts and still hungry), Chris, nearly as tall as me, his partner Ana, Sausage and I in addition to our Captain and First Mate who look as though they've both taken the day off school in order to be with us.

Our 'seat' is a 2 inch thick foam cushion on the floor of the boat (though I only learn afterwards that Sausage didn't even have this!) and we arrange ourselves with our legs haphazardly bent over the back of the seat in front and wrapped around each other in a peculiar parody of Twister.

I scan the sky for what sounds like a low flying jet fighter but see nothing and then I realise that our driver has started the engine. Although 'speedboat' has lost a lot in translation, 'silencer' has not been translated at all.

And then we set off. Within seconds we are screaming over the surface of the Mekong at what feels like 40mph but is probably less. Our heads are maybe two feet above the water and my arse is separated from the water by inch of plywood and 2 inches of foam.

On glassy smooth stretches of water the boat sways like a powerful rear-wheel-drive car on a skid-pan. On ripples of 2 inches it is like being towed over gravel on a piece of plywood. At 3 inch ripples the gravel is replaced by cobbles, anything bigger and the front of the boat lifts and we slam down onto water turned to concrete by our speed. We all cling on for dear life and try not to think about the 5 hours 57 minutes still to go.

As the boat skids, rattles and slams along every conceivable measure is taken to reduce the pain levels. We had inserted our earplugs before we put the rickety old crash helmets on our heads, but now fleeces, sunhats and even the padding out of my daysack are being positioned behind our backs. Sausage has a far worse time than me because her little short legs barely touch the ground on the far side of the seat in front of her so that the top of the thin wooden seat back is jabbing fiercely into the back of her legs where it vibrates at whatever revs the engine is currently producing as well as the completely irregular hammer-blows provided by the turbulent river.

Eventually the lunch stop occurs amidst much gallows humour and very little sitting down. We have to change boats for the second leg of the journey and make ourselves as comfortable as we can. Chris and I in the front of the boat get the deluxe seats, our legs up on the luggage while Sausage, Tiffany and Ana continue their contortions on the rear.

Once you tune out the noise, the severe muscular pain and the very vitriolic headmaster who has followed us from Nepal and is thrashing our arses even harder than he did on the bus from Beni, once you get past these things it is an undeniably exciting ride, screaming over the surface of one of the world's great rivers like a stone skimming across a frozen lake. (DISCLAIMER: Sausage begs to differ, it was positively NOT exciting and she missed all the views because she had her eyes shut). The river is broad, it's waters the colour of milk chocolate and the surrounding scenery offers rolling hills covered in thick forest given a patchwork look by apparently random deforestation.

Lest we be tempted to think that, with our makeshift cushions and craftily arranged limbs we are close to reaching positions of tolerable comfort for the remainder of the journey (DISCLAIMER: It may have been alright for the boys on the front but I was in constant pain. Sausage) we are reminded of our true position, a long way from home, in pain, and deaf when the engine dies and the boat slumps down into the chocolate river. None of us can turn our heads to see what the problem is, so tightly are we packed in and we spend the next hour stopping and starting on average every 15 minutes. Finally the tolerance of the temporary fix is exceeded and we pull over to the bank where we discover that the throttle cable has snapped. We sit on the riverbank with 90 minutes of daylight left and estimates of our remaining journey time changing every time we ask the Captain. He really seems to be spitting out numbers as randomly as the machines on the National Lottery, his estimates ranging from 20 minutes to 3 hours.

Eventually, as the light fails and the temperature falls we pull over to the bank and are informed that we have arrived at Luang Prabhang Speedboat Pier, this being Pier in the sense of no Pier at all and a treacherous climb up a 30 metre bank with our rucksacks on and each of us walking like newly born foals.

For the first time in the whole trip we have some difficulty finding a place to stay but room is found at the inn eventually and we dump our bags and wobble out for our first Laotian meal with Ana and Chris who prove to be good fun, her Portuguese talkativeness rushing to fill any gaps left by quiet Geordie Chris. The food is delicious, distinctly different from Thailand, omitting lemongrass and coconut, but lacking nothing in flavour without being too spicy. The other really good news is that as a former French colony Laos bakeries make excellent French bread, a fact which promises to be good news for our taste-buds but bad news for our waistlines.

As we fall into bed we can't reach a conclusion as to whether the pain was worth the gain or whether the slow boat would have been a better choice, though the question is academic because we'll be making sure that we stay on terra-firma for as long as possible to let our battered bodies recover.

More to follow ASAP.

Lots of Love
The Travelling Sausages